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Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Great Neapolitan Tenor Francesco Albanese


Francesco Albanese was born in Torre del Greco, Naples, and was a popular lyric tenor, known not only for his work in opera, but as one of the greatest singers of Neapolitan song.  His life and career were almost entirely in Italy, although he did sing in London, Portugal and South America.  As a result, his work was largely within the Italian repertoire,  but that of course is a very large part of opera!   He did not, to the best of my knowledge, ever sing in the United States.  We have an unfortunate tendency in the US to think that Italian singers who never sang here were  unsuccessful or unimpressive.  That is a silly kind of chauvinism, of course; nothing could be further from the truth.  He in fact had a very good career, and is greatly respected today.

His first studies were in Rome, with Francesco Salfi, and it was there that he made his debut, at the Teatro dell'Opera, in Gluck's Alceste  His early repertoire was to become his characteristic repertoire, which is leggiero, or light lyric roles, such as Almaviva, Fenton, Rinuccio, Ottavio, Ramiro, Ernesto (Don Pasquale), Armida, Alfredo and Nemorino.

He recorded both Ifigenia in Tauride, (1957) and La Traviata (early 50's )  opposite Maria Callas.

It was not only in opera that Albanese had a good career.  For lovers of Neapolitan music, Albanese is commonly considered one of the greatest of all singers of Neapolitan songs, which have a remarkable history all their own.  As I always hasten to point out, whenever I speak of Neapolitan songs, there is a great misconception about what they are.  It seems, for example, that nearly every operatic tenor and baritone on earth feels obliged to sing these songs, whether or not they know anything about Naples, its language, literature, or musical history.  As a result of this, many of the songs are done poorly.  In fact, the Neapolitan song has a style all its own,  because these songs have a long history and in their earliest iterations, they were art songs, much more restrained and dignified in tone than they now often appear in the hands of many singers. Further, they were, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a principle means of instructing a large and unlettered populace in Neapolitan cultural and literary history--they served as a kind of instruction in napolitanità ; which is to say in what it meant to be Neapolitan.  Therefore, a great familiarity with Naples, its music, its political history,  its language and its literature is required to do them well.  Several names come immediately to mind, including Fernando de Lucia—still the all-time favorite tenor of many Neapolitans—modern singers Roberto Murolo and Aurelio Fierro, and of course Francesco Albanese.

I think it's possible to get a good idea of just what a fine singer Albanese was by listening to him sing one of the most popular of all Neapolitan songs, Dicitencello Vuje.  When I posted this on Youtube, I included the lyrics, and translated them from Neapolitan into English.  It makes it possible to follow the song carefully.

Isn't that just absolutely wonderful!  That is what a Neapolitan song is supposed to sound like.  The first thing you will notice is that it is completely devoid of shouting, moaning, groaning, glycerin tears or schlock.  It is in fact as well constructed, singable and  dignified as many a Schubert Lied, making allowance for the theme of romance expressed in a Latin way and in a Latin language.  Of course, these tonal differences will be expressed in ways particular to both cultures, but that says nothing about the quality of the artistry, just the intrinsic nature of the different cultures, languages, and peoples.  You can hear the same differences in political or scientific discussions or speeches.  On the same Youtube page where this song appears, you can find, in the right hand sidebar, the same song "sung" by the Three Tenors.  I don't recommend it:-)

As for opera, here is "Parigi, o Cara....," from La Traviata, with Maria Callas:

Notice the restraint and the elegance of his singing.  This is classy singing, there is no doubt about it, and very much against stereotype.  I would contend that this is exactly the quality I find in the Neapolitan songs he sings, and one of the major reasons he sings them so authentically and beautifully.  A first class tenor, and a credit to Italian music!



JD Hobbes said...

Yes, good comments. I enjoyed your previous selection on Roberto Murolo and compared his singing to that of Albanese. It is a strong contrast, but I find both pleasing and interesing in their own way.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Mr. Hobbes. I really appreciate your comments. Yes, both the Albanese and the Murolo videos I posted on my channel really got a good reception. Murolo is of course THE authority on Neapolitan music, and is himself a brilliant guitarist and a fine singer, although of course he did not have an operatic voice. But he understands the music probably better than anyone, although I will say that Albanese could run him a close second. It's wonderful music, and I never get tired of investigating it. Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Hooray! A blog on Albanese! What you say is true. Nobody can sing Neopolitan songs like him! Love it. He's always been a favorite of mine I'm glad to see somebody finally write something about him. He doesn't get the attention he deserves. THANK YOU Edmund!!

Jeff C.

Edmund St. Austell said...

:-) Thank YOU, Jeff! I appreciate your enthusiasm, and I concur! Wonderful tenor, still got a lot of fans out there. Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

beautiful voice! Like him! The girl is nice too. AMazing shes only 13.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you for your comment. I appreciate it!

Anonymous said...

The information about Neapolitan songs and their style is very interesting. It seems that every singer tries to perform them as “passionately” as possible, and that kills the style. Albanese is very different , I love his voice and performance. He sounds passionate and romantic, though he didn’t try to “chew the scenery”. Thanks for the article on him. His recording with Callas is a masterpiece.


Anonymous said...

Elena is a cultured singer, which is a rare quality.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Natalie! Those are two fine comments. I appreciate what you say about Albanese, because his restraint is what lends dignity to his singing, and that in turn is what makes his rendering of Neapolitan songs so important and so revealing. And I think you hit the nail on the head with little Elena too. She does indeed sing as a cultured singer sings, at the age of only 13 years. That is truly important. Thanks again, I always look forward to hearing from you!

DanPloy said...

Thank-you for a very enjoyable couple of hours, Edmund.

I had not heard that Neapolitan song before and looked for other versions on YouTube. Confining myself to operatic singers, (and Al Martino who was nearly operatic), the refinement of Albanese's version shone through.

As you mentioned, the three tenors' version (and in particular Domingo who sang as if it was a call to arms) highlighted how not to sing it, but even the musical intelligence of Tito Gobbi did not match the fluidity of Albanese's singing.

Refinement might imply a lack of emotion but far from it, the lack of histrionics actually emphasized the lyrics and allowed the song to just be itself, (if you know what I mean).

I will give to special mention to del Monaco's version - I love that man although it is probably the opposite of Neapolitan style - but just shading Albanese was, in my view and perhaps surpisingly, Bonisolli who sings it with great beauty and without adornments.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Wow! Great comment, Dan! Can I swipe it and put it in the article, please? :-) Nothing I could add to that, except to share your enthusiasm for both Del Monaco and Bonisolli, two of my absolute favorites! Yes, when one is choosing among giants, it's always win-win, isn't it:-) Thanks again, Dan. I always appreciate your erudite and perceptive comments!